Wednesday, September 24, 2014

10 Pieces of Sage Marathon Advice

While my own personal quest is all about running the Indy Mini Marathon next May, my mind right now is definitely on the Chicago Marathon.

I love the race, and have since the first time I saw it on TV in 1999...which was the day I was inspired to start running. I have run the race six times, spectated another three or four times and in 2011-12 covered the race for the running website Letsrun.com. And, during the summers of 2004-05 I wrote a weekly column about the marathon for the Aurora Beacon News, not to mention having contributed marathon-related content to Chicago Athlete magazine.

OK, the last part of that wasn't to brag or name drop, it was just to say that I have no doubt seen this event from every angle, for which I feel very, very blessed. Actually, seeing the race from that side is quite interesting and worth talking about sometime. Probably in the next week or so.

But back on point, I figured since the marathon is on everyone else's mind, I should join in too. I was supposed to run the race myself, but ended up deferring my entry because between getting married, vacations, graduations (and parties), one son's surgery (he's OK, matter of fact he's better than OK now) and another going off to college, the summer quickly got away from me.

So be prepared to be inundated with a few marathon-related blurbs over the next couple of weeks. It will be kind of weird, but for the first time since 1999 I won't be around for the marathon. I'll be in Atlanta attending the Bears-Falcons game with my brother and his wife.

I will be there in spirit, and as my gift to you, I present ten very important pieces of advice about race day.

1) If it's your first, just finish. No matter how long you have been running, or where your abilities lie, a marathon will be an experience unlike you have ever had before. A mega-marathon like Chicago can quickly overwhelm you and can lead to a lot of bad tactical decisions. Tactic No. 1 should be just finishing the race. There will always be more chances to post a time of you want to. In my first marathon, I put myself into "run all day" mode, meaning I found a pace that I felt I could run for a long, long time. It was even slower than my training pace, but it was comfortable and I avoided a major crash in the final miles.

2) Trust your training. If you followed your training to the exact letter, you will have done somewhere between 70-100 runs over the course of the 18 weeks. If you trained with a Chicago Area Runners Association group or a charity group, I can tell you with total confidence that you are ready. Last year I ran with a CARA group and hit the line feeling completely prepared. Whether or not "you can do it" should be out the window by this point. Just tell yourself that you can!

3) Don't obsess about the weather! Control what you can control. You trained through a Midwest summer, there is nothing the weather can throw at you that you haven't seen before. It doesn't hurt to be mindful of the weather as far as your prep and tactics are concerned, but beyond that it is what it is. Don't let the weather get into your head.

4) Start slow. See point one about just finishing. Adrenaline is a crazy thing, so is tapering. You might be going along thinking "yeah, I feel great!". Well if you feel awesome, then the taper worked! Which is good news, because that means physically you are ready to run. But it doesn't mean you are suddenly able to do something you weren't capable of before. In the course of several hours, honestly, what does a minute or two here or there matter? Run well below your means at the start, which will pay off dividends at the end.

Which brings me to...

5) There are no race-day miracles. We all know of someone who has "popped" a race, meaning they came in with one expectation and ended up running something completely different. I've done a couple of those myself, including setting my half marathon PR in 2007 and running what I consider to be my "best" (but not fastest) marathon in the heat at Chicago later that year. The thing is, popping a race isn't a miracle, it is the rare harmonic convergence of several factors, with training, confidence level, experience and conditions being among them. What you have put into the race training-wise is what you will get out of it. Keep that in mind when you set your race-day goals.

6) Tactics. Up at the front of the field, it's ALL about tactics, and back in the pack with us mere mortals, it matters as well. Pace groups definitely help, but over these next couple of weeks think about what you want to do, and be as specific as possible. What works for me is that I break the race into smaller pieces, run the first 5K, get to under 20 to go, get to 10 miles, and so on. Then all I focus on is that smaller goal, and check it off when I achieve it.

7) Be a good competitor. One thing that bugs me about big races like Chicago is that they include rude people. Well, all races do, but when 35,000 people get together for something, the number of rude people that show up becomes that much exponential and much closer to my last nerve. Try not to cut people off, or push people or just do something you normally wouldn't in your daily walk of life. Last year I was moving through a water stop and was reaching for a cup from one of the volunteers, and a woman barged in front of me, knocked my arm away and took the cup! Really? Is that couple of seconds you save going to make that much of a difference? It' like heavy traffic on the tollway...be cool, be patient and take care of each other, and you will get to where you are going to go.

8) The course is accurate/follow the line. Just a reminder that Garmins and GPS are awesome, but no matter what yours says at the end of the race, the course IS 26.2 miles long. As a World Marathon Major, the course has been checked, re-checked and checked again. Race director Carey Pinkowski loves world records and would love it if it was broken again here someday. And I know any race director would hate having to give up a record because of an inaccurate course. Actually, the way it is done is kind of fascinating and worth reading about. It's all about tangents (a line that draws the shortest point-to-point of the course), and you can cut some distance out of your day by learning some of the course and running corner to corner. Pull up some marathon video of the elite runners on YouTube and you will see what I'm talking about. The follow pretty much the same imaginary measurement line that the organizers use to measure it.

9) Be nice to the volunteers. These are people who are taking time out of their lives to ensure you have a good day. They aren't trained professionals, but most of them work hard and love being a part of the event. Try to say "thank you" as much as you can...I usually do when I grab water or Gatorade. Think about your unsupported long runs, how you have to carry things, leave fluids in bushes and wait to cross busy streets. Then think of trying to do that on one of the biggest days of your athletic life. They take away a lot of stress and make our jobs much, much easier.

And last, and most importantly...

10) Enjoy it! Yes, it's hard and yes, it's extremely painful, but it's also one of the most awesomely rewarding things you will ever do for yourself in your entire life. Ferris Bueller was right, if you don't stop and look around once in a while, you'll miss it. A marathon is one of the fastest four, five or six hours of your life, and by the time you know it, you are making that final turn onto Columbus and crossing the finish linie. We live in (or near, in my case) a world class city with wonderful people who support this race, and you are missing out by not taking some time here and there to realize that you are doing something extraordinary.

When my son Matt was running in the National Catholic Championships at Notre Dame last week I asked him if there was ever a time that he looked around and thought "man, this is really cool!". He said he did a couple of times. What you are about to do is cool and will be something that you will remember the rest of your life, and you don't want to get so focused that you forget that it's supposed to be fun and the final exclamation point to an incredible journey. When the day is over you'll be happy you did!

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